Editors’ note: This year’s election season clearly revealed what many have long suspected: America is a deeply divided nation. What has caused this division? What is the way forward? How can evangelicals respond in a way that leads to healing and increased unity? The Gospel Coalition invited several writers and observers to explore those and related questions for an online symposium on the State of Evangelicalism.
Other articles in this series:
- #NeverTrumpers in the Age of Trump (Hunter Baker)
- What Persecuted Syrians Can Teach Us About American Politics (Mindy Belz)
- 4 Unique Perspectives on Politics (Mika Edmondson)
- Powerful Witness from a Position of Weakness (Bruce Ashford)
- Hope for America Despite Signs of Death (Greg Forster)
- 4 Suggestions for Post-Election Listening (Eric Redmond)
- Caught Between Doomsday Rhetoric and Changing Demographics (Mark Tooley)
I’m humbled to be included in this series on the state of American evangelicalism, even though I find the evangelical label too sociologically convoluted to claim for myself.
I firmly believe the Bible is the infallible and inerrant Word of God, and I have a great passion for his global body. Out of this perspective, I’ve often wondered what kind of Christians recent cultural pressures will produce.
As a student of the global persecuted church since 1993, I’ve observed that the body of Christ can—and does—survive in the absence of cultural or political power. Without integrity, though, she struggles mightily.
Earlier, WORLD magazine’s Mindy Belz reflected on the vitriol she and others experienced as they questioned President-elect Trump’s moral integrity. The force of the response they received was surprising, since evangelicals previously held moral fortitude as a virtue in political leadership.
But the response doesn’t likely surprise anyone who has experienced similar treatment for expressing concern over some of President Obama’s policies, or over the myriad cultural movements that have emerged in the last eight years.
Interestingly, both men’s paths to the presidency began as unlikely grassroots campaigns. They both grew into movements driven in part by people who felt disenfranchised by the system. With such visceral associations as a foundation, publicly speaking against either leader often yields strong defensive reactions. Vocal opposition has become a social taboo, or can even be interpreted as tribal betrayal.
Yet just as neither leader is beyond biblical critique, neither could possibly live up to the near-messianic expectations often placed on him. Neither is the demon or the savior we imagine him to be, yet there is plenty on both sides over which we should voice biblical concern. As we head into another four years of potential political and cultural volatility, overlooking issues of integrity in the policies or personal lives of our leaders will not give us the heroes we think we need.
As we head into another four years of potential political and cultural volatility, overlooking issues of integrity in the policies or personal lives of our leaders will not give us the heroes we think we need.
Similarly, impugning the motives of Christians who voted for President-elect Trump is roundly unhelpful. His supporters now have the same responsibility as those who voted for President Obama and his party: to protect future integrity by being the fiercest and most truth-filled critics during his tenure. Introspection and self-critique tempers hyper-partisanship.
Conversely, Christians who did not vote for Trump may find it difficult to acknowledge his good actions, but as we listen critically to our leaders in their own words, and not others’ interpretations of their words, this too might curb hyper-partisanship. If we had been more balanced in both our criticism and praise over the last eight years, the body of Christ in America might be less polarized than she is today.
Selective Justice Dilutes Our Voice
Throughout history, Christian communities have had a strong influence in correcting man’s inhumanity to man. Yet in our climate of Manichean distinctions, selective outrage based solely on ideological concerns has emptied our voice of its prophetic power.
In other words, the seemingly opposed parties of “family values” and “social justice” tend to apply concern only to their defining issues. One would expect the same conservative Christians concerned over the global rise of Marxist views and methods to also speak up against the global rise of Alt-Right extremism, considering the similar historical record of both ideologies. One would expect progressive Christian voices to do the same in reverse.
Much to the frustration of both sides, this is often not the case.
Conservatives who lionized the Navy SEAL team that brought Osama bin Laden to justice had little praise for the commander-in-chief on whose watch it occurred. Progressives who feared the hawkish campaign rhetoric of President-elect Trump missed the opportunity to raise a unified voice against the Obama administration’s use of lethal force against innocent Yemeni civilians—despite a significant report produced by the progressive Open Society Justice Initiative.[i]
Both progressive and conservative voices struggle to see the religious liberty parallels between the indigenous population protecting their hallowed land from the Dakota Access Pipeline, and those fighting to honor their traditional marriage conviction in the marketplace. In both cases, something deemed sacred is felt to be threatened by government forces.
Some who identify as modern activists suggest our response to their movement today somehow indicates what our response would have been during the civil rights movement of the 1960s. By this same logic, our response to persecution of Christians in the first century would have been just as sluggish as our response to Christian genocide today—cited as part of the largest humanitarian crisis in the Middle East and northeastern Africa since World War II.
Noting such inconsistencies, a small handful of Christians feel out of step in this age of activism. Has loyalty to leader, party, and cause left us defending the indefensible, or remaining deaf, dumb, and divided on some of the most significant issues of our time?
Has loyalty to leader, party, and cause left us defending the indefensible, or remaining deaf, dumb, and divided on some of the most significant issues of our time?
This concern is understandable. To paraphrase Martin Luther King Jr., history always remembers our silences on humanitarian matters of great scope.
Twenty years ago Luis Lugo, director of the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, wrote of the Christian’s tension between the left and right:
In principle, Christians must reject every form of totalitarian ideology, whether of the far left or the far right. . . . All totalitarian experiments are utopian and necessarily end in failure, though often, unfortunately, not before visiting great calamity on other social institutions and even on the human spirit itself.
The most prominent of these is the ideology of nationalism, which makes the nation-state the object of ultimate loyalty and the primary source of the citizen’s self-definition. . . . Few of us would deny the benefits of a healthy sense of nationality, but all of us would do well to keep in mind C. S. Lewis’s sobering warning that “love of country is a love that becomes a demon when it becomes a god.”
For similar reasons, Christians should also be skeptical of liberation theologies of whatever stripe, for their very nature is to conflate the reality of the kingdom of God with earthly temporal arrangements.[ii]
Just as some Christians grew distressed by the unbiblical overreach of the progressive left, Christians on the political right will likely learn of the disappointment inherent in parties and movements.
Growing out of this atmosphere where followers are quick to praise and slow to critique their favored leaders is a small community of Christians speaking with a transcendent[iii] voice not owned by politics, culture, or temporal movements.
Their voice strives not to be counter-cultural, but “other-cultural.” They are not political or apolitical, but “other-political.” As they engage culture and politics, their voice sounds and behaves differently than any other social, political, or cultural movement.
Some wish to represent kingdom truth within temporal parties and movements while boldly opposing the unbiblical voices therein. Others form coalitions with other radical truth-tellers. In both cases, protecting and exercising their unique prophetic voice can create more effective “dual” citizens in the heavenly and temporal realms.
Why shouldn’t the Christian’s unique perspective and loyalties yield a voice that is distinctive in what it allows and disavows? Christianity doesn’t fit neatly into man-made ideological boxes, nor does it depend on the principles of other cultural movements or political ideologies. A voice that speaks from a perspective above political, ethnic, or cultural associations should be a hallmark of the body of Christ.
A voice that speaks from a perspective above political, ethnic, or cultural associations should be a hallmark of the body of Christ.
There’s no way of knowing precisely how many of these voices exist. Because this community is diffuse by nature, it can’t be treated as a static or homogenous sociological group. But it will likely have the shape of a minority voice, and expression will come at social cost. In Vincent Bacote’s words, “To be a stranger, alien, sojourner, or pilgrim means that our sense of belonging to God will exist with some level of tension with our immediate home.”[iv]
This transcendence is not an abstract philosophy, but a reality grounded in the transformative wisdom and power found in union with Christ.
Jesus is the “ultimate transcendent” who:
- Saw revelation as a far greater force than revolution.
- Challenged (and in some cases, fulfilled) programmed cultural, religious, and political doctrines, speaking full truth to power without discrimination.
- Displayed perfect discernment, applying God’s truth to core cultural concerns and divisions.
- Openly challenged existing cultural and political systems while working among them.
- Had deep compassion for people yet wasn’t naïve about humanity’s unredeemed nature.
- Accepted his social and cultural isolation.
- Wasn’t merely concerned with cultural change, but also transformed lives on personal and local levels.
The Christian’s unique understanding of the world demands a different response than any other in politics, activism, or culture-shaping, even while participating in these processes.
Those who’ve struggled to find a political or cultural home are finding they’re not alone. As this small handful of Christians sheds their political and cultural shibboleths, some are strategizing across ideological lines to apply biblical wisdom to political, social, and cultural concerns in fresh ways. They are stepping away from partisanship—from the victimology of the far-left and the triumphalism of the far-right, and are rather focusing more on the cross and triumph of Jesus Christ.
The transcendent voice may not be the loudest in the public square, and it may not be the most popular. But Scripture promises it will mark history with enduring and influential integrity into eternity.
[i] Amrit Singh, Death by Drone: Civilian Harm Caused by U.S. Targeted Killings in Yemen (2015), 12.
[ii] Michael Cromartie, ed. Caesar’s Coin Revisited: Christians and the Limits of Government (1996), 6–7.
[iii] Transcendence: a view that seeks the whole counsel of God’s revelation, and is therefore not content with a faulty and finite human perspective.
[iv] Vincent Bacote, The Political Disciple: A Theology of Public Life (2015), 46 (Kindle).